7 Top Tips for Accessing Museum Collections for PhD Students

During the course of my PhD I have been very lucky to study artefacts from more than 15 different museum collections and undertake research loans from a number of those. In this post I thought I would share a few things I have found useful when going about contacting and working with museums.

Contact Museums Well In Advance

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are research loans and collection access requests. You can’t go in there all guns blazing demanding the world and his wife. These things take time!

Some museums may be able to accommodate you at short notice but most will require you to contact them at least a couple of months in advance. At larger national museums, loans and research access may need to be approved by multiple committees and individuals and may require you to contact them 6-12 months in advance.

Be Patient & Understanding

Many smaller museums employ part-time staff or are run entirely by volunteers who don’t work full time, so it may take longer to receive replies to emails etc. Even in larger institutions, curators may go on leave or there may be job vacancies covered by members of staff, in addition to other duties they may have. Be patient and kind!

Justify Your Research & Explain Your Methods

Produce a research design and a non-technical summary of your methods (this needs to detail your methods but avoid technical jargon where possible).

If you have these already prepared it also makes filling out any loan request forms (where you’re often asked for this information) very quick, straight forward and generally speeds up the process.

Develop A Good Working Relationship

Developing a good working relationship with a museum or curator can be really invaluable during your research.

Some museums wanted me to come in an look at the objects I wanted to loan ‘in house’ before loaning them out. This is a great chance to meet curators face to face and gives you an opportunity to explain your research and methods, as well as have a good look at the material you want to study!

Be Prepared They May Say No!

Sometimes your request just can’t be accommodated or logistical issues may mean your request can’t be accommodated in the needed timescale. This can be frustrating but be understanding, you may be able to arrange access at a later date.

If you can chat to curators about any research access or loan requests before you start completing official request paperwork they will be able to give you a good idea if the request is likely to be accepted or denied.

Share Your Results (& Publish)!

This one is really important!

Museums and their staff are really keen to learn more about their collections so its essential we share our results with them.  Always try to send an email to summarise the results of your analysis as soon as reasonably possible.  This can then be followed up by a short report (if necessary) on your analysis and findings. I would always try to get reports to the museums c.1-2 months after returning the objects or completing my analysis .

Also try to send the museum digital copies of any publications resulting from your research (obviously this takes time), as this helps them demonstrate the impact and importance of their collections.  On the other hand, if you don’t share or publish your results, museums are unlikely to let you undertake loans in the future. If a museum’s interaction with you is positive they will also be more likely to support other students and researchers wishing to access their collections in the future.

Give Something Back

Museums may ask you (or you might be able to offer) to give a talk on your research, write a short article for their newsletter or local archaeology journal. These are great ways to support museums and to give something back to these awesome institutions!